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Scarcity and stories

Scarcity. FOMO. Scott Galloway is right. In this recent post, he talks about why humans are programmed to chase scarcity and why blockchains (specifically NFTs) could represent something incredibly meaningful for not just the art world but for many other asset classes. Here’s an excerpt from the post:

People like scarcity — a lot. Owning something scarce makes one feel unique, and signals success and worthiness as a potential mate. Scarcity is also an instinctual trigger for obsession — when we sense a scarcity of something, be it food or a mate, we are programmed to become obsessed with finding it. Art auctions, the (pre-pandemic) lines outside Supreme, and the margins on a Panerai Tourbillon prove this point.

A Van Gogh and a Rothko are both unique, and therefore scarce, because they are made of atoms, and it is impossible to arrange a second set of atoms in an identical configuration. Print artists, whose lithographs are made to be reproduced without alteration, use a small “17/100” written in the corner, to distinguish each print and bestow scarcity upon it.

To hold value, scarcity must be credible. The dirty (not-so) secret of the art world is that art buyers, and even professional art appraisers, struggle to discern originals from forgeries. A well-made forgery provides the same practical value as an original — you can hang it on your wall and bask in its profundity. Yet the art world invests millions of dollars in identifying the “real” version of valuable works; once unmasked, forgeries are nearly worthless.

I have always found this fascinating about art (but really, it applies to most other things). Is the price you pay so that you can “bask in its profundity” or because the object in question signifies something — it tells a story? In addition to scarcity, we also obsess over stories. They help create meaning for us.

The interesting thing about all of this is that it’s really just a question of perception. When a work of art is discovered to be a fake that is, indeed, detrimental to value. But what changed? The art itself hasn’t changed. We just no longer enjoy it and derive as much value from it because the story is not what we thought it was.


  1. Judith Martin

    About 30 years ago I bought a large print (45/100) from Liberty’s of London, a high-end department store that had a very good department for arts and applied arts. By Sally Swain, from a series called Great Housewives in Art, it’s called Mrs Gaugin Holds a Tupperware Party. It’s not high art but I thought it was witty and entertaining and made a good political point. It wasn’t cheap, and I had to pay for a large frame. The store explained the print technology – I forget what it was called but later my husband was pretty scornful; it was really just a photographic print, not a lithograph or an engraving or any of the other techniques I’ve since understood a bit about, and that actually take the involvement of the artist. It’s not a fake but the explanation was fake.
    It’s still witty etc. but there’s no doubt my pleasure was spoiled, not just because I know it’s valueless but because I was duped, and by a store I’ve always loved.
    Value is a complicated thing.


  2. Pingback: NFTs, luxury brands, and reclaiming ownership – BRANDON DONNELLY

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